The days are getting shorter, the weather’s getting colder, and all signs are pointing to the arrival of fall. Autumn in Champaign-Urbana brings with it many wonderful, seasonal gifts: crisp, colorful days, perfect for a stroll through one of the many parks in the area, the chance to pick out (and then carve) a pumpkin at Curtis Orchard (or Negangard Pumpkin Patch), and lots of football.

Fall also affords us an opportunity for contemplation. As the (at times) brutal summer heat subsides, spots of flaming vermillion, burnt ocher, and mottled gold have started popping up and will slowly but surely overtake summer’s green abundance. In a month, the limbs of our community’s many trees will hang bare and, shudder-inducing though it may be, the first snowflakes of the winter may have fallen (the Horror!).

There is one autumnal pastime that blends fall’s excitement and melancholy while also connecting us with our roots: sitting around a roaring fire with friends. As you listen to the crackle of burning wood and watch the embers float up and melt away into the night sky, there’s conversation, laughter, listening and moments of silence. There might even be a guitar and a bit of musical communion, one last chance to enjoy the night air as life in our neck of the woods makes its preparations for winter.

Much like a fireside sing-a-long, the C-U Folk and Roots Festival has become a highly anticipated fall tradition here over the last decade. From puppetry and parades to performances by some of the world’s premiere folk, bluegrass, roots and soul musicians, the festival brings a world of artistic variety to our town over the course of three, jam-packed days of shows and events.

One of the event’s founders and organizers, Rob Krumm, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about this year’s festival via email. And while the questions are mine, the crisp, vividly written responses are all the work of Mr. Krumm.

Smile Politely: Can you tell us a little bit about this year’s festival? When does it start? How long will it last? Is there a theme?

Rob Krumm: This will be the 11th annual C-U Folk and Roots Festival, and we have about 70 events planned for the three-day period of Thursday, October 24th through Saturday, October 26th, 2019.  All festival events will be held in Urbana, The venues will include the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Iron Post, Rose Bowl, Blackbird, Community Center for the Arts, the Cohen Building, Urbana Free Library, Common Ground Food Co-op and the Lincoln Square Food Court. The Channing-Murray Foundation, Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant and the Urbana Dance Company are new venues for this year’s festival. 
The festival will start with a free kick-off event at Krannert on Thursday, October 24th, from 5 to 7 p.m. That show will feature The Gaslight Squares (from St. Louis) along with the Hot Club of Urbana. Thursday night events will continue at the Channing Murray Foundation and Blackbird. 

There is no official theme, but as always, the 2019 C-U Folk and Roots Festival is all about engagement, participation and fun. The festival has been described as the best little festival of bands that you’ve probably never heard of. Music fans are a curious lot and many people enjoy going to listen to an artist they’ve never heard of. Learning more about established musicians, as well as up-and-coming performers is a big part of the festival experience.

SP: This is the "CU Folk and Roots Festival", so music will be the focus of the festival. However, past iterations have featured workshops, dancing, instructional sessions, and family friendly activities?  Will this year's festival feature any of the non-concert activities? If so, can you tell us a little bit more about them?

Krumm: Yes, indeed, the festival features performances, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The festival team prides itself on designing a program that will get people involved with the festival. In that regard, there will be about 30 programs on Saturday, October 26th, that will include jam sessions, hands-on instrument workshops (harmonica, rhythm bones, ukulele), dance classes, storytelling, a “Musical Mayhem” parade, singing workshops and more. These events are part a family-friendly program that is for kids of all ages. And all events during the day on Festival Saturday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) are free. Some of the highlights of these programs include a Rhythm Bones workshop with Dom Flemons, a New Orleans Street Beats jam with Lilli Lewis, and storytelling at the Urbana Free Library. The early Saturday program at the Community Center for the Arts (10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) will be dedicated to programs especially for children including the Morning Music session with Robin Kearton, engaging performances by Humbird and Mr. Stephens, a Puppet Party with Miss Hannah Rae, and the Musical Mayhem Parade. These programs are a lot of fun. I always tell people that it is really good to be young and to grow up in Urbana.

SP: This is a question I asked you last year but one of the stated missions for the festival is to “promote a feeling of community”. How will this year's festival achieve this goal?

Krumm: Promoting a feeling of community is important for the festival. The festival is open to everyone in the community, and we invite everyone to attend. The Saturday daytime programs are free and we hope that people will bring their families and perhaps bring some of the children from their neighborhood.  By encouraging participation, we hope that people will gather, learn something about an instrument (or singing, jamming, dancing, storytelling, etc.) and get to know each other.   By having a lot of festival events during the day and in many types of venues, we hope to entice people to discover new places in the community. And we want to attract families and people who might not want to go to a bar or night spot to listen to music. This year the festival will include many events at the Urbana Free Library, Community Center for the Arts, the Cohen Building, Urbana Dance Company, Common Ground Food Co-op, and the Lincoln Square Food Court.  We hope people will come out, walk around downtown, and enjoy this terrific community.

SP: If I can be frank, we're living in some crazy, divisive times. How does the CUF&R Festival bring people together? How does it celebrate diversity?

Krumm: We might be living in some crazy times, but music and dance have always brought people together no matter their backgrounds or political preferences. This is something I have witnessed during my travels around the country to play music.  When you sit down at a jam or go to a dance, the only thing that matters is the music and the dancing. When people come together around music they don’t ask, “What do you do for work?” or “Who did you vote for?”  They just focus on what they are doing and enjoying that experience together.

For the Folk and Roots Festival, diversity in the program has multiple facets that include musical varieties, racial diversity among performers, diversity of venue types, and geographic diversity (in terms of where bands are from).  This year the musical lineup includes blues, West African, jazz, bluegrass, Cajun, country, old time, soul, singer-songwriter, jug band and more. We always put a spotlight on the local music scene, so we’ll have several local bands. They will be joined by musicians from San Francisco, New Orleans, Nashville, Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago and more. We believe in offering a lineup with rich racial diversity as well, and we’re proud to have local legend Candy Foster on the schedule as well as Kyshona Armstrong, Jean Rene Balekita, Dom Flemons, Melvin Knight, Lilli Lewis, and the fabulous Ayodele Drum and Dance from Chicago. By offering a rich, musically diverse lineup with bands from C-U and all over the country, we hope to appeal to a broad audience.

SP: Can you tell us a little bit about some of the acts featured this year? What kind of sounds can the audience look forward to? Anyone you're particularly excited about having in CU?

Krumm: Oh wow, there are a lot of terrific acts this year. The Booking Committee (Cody Jensen, Charlie Ford, Charlie Harris and Emily McKown) should be acknowledged for doing such a great job with bookings. These are some of touring bands coming to the festival. Dom Flemons (formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) returns to headline the festival.  Dom is a wonderful musician, scholar, and a kind soul. He seems to love hanging out for the weekend in C-U. Known as the “American Songster,” Dom knows hundreds of songs and has a deep appreciation of both tradition and innovation. From New Orleans, Lilli Lewis is a gifted singer and performer. Veretski Pass, a klezmer band from San Francisco, offers impressive musicianship and raw energy that has excited fans around the world. The Gaslight Squares, from St. Louis, will be part of the kickoff show at the Krannert Center playing traditional jazz, swing, and ragtime. From Birmingham, AL, the Steel City Jug Slammers have the charm of a century-old traveling music show. There are many other regional and national artists on the schedule. In terms of local bands, people should check out The Hot Club of Urbana, the Bashful Youngens, Hobnob String Band, Candy Foster, the Orpheus Mandolin Orchestra (from Bloomington, IL) and many more. The complete lineup can be accessed at folkandroots.org.

SP: Final Question: Why should people come to the festival? As they walk out at the end of a performance/workshop/dance session, how might they expect to feel?

Krumm: People should come to the festival because they’ll probably enjoy getting to hear some really great music by bands and performers that they may never have heard of before. The folk and roots genre is so broad and there are thousands of bands out there on the national music scene. Our Booking Committee has a great knack of booking bands that offer top quality musicianship and performances. If people are not familiar with a band or performer, they should check out their set and my guess is that they’ll be pleasantly surprised.  With a rich programming diversity, we feel that the festival offers something for everyone. You can come to the festival and take an instrument workshop, enjoy listening-room quality performances, dance, meet some of your neighbors and make some new friends

Walkability and easy access are priorities for the festival. After the two events on campus on Thursday evening (Krannert Center and Channing-Murray Foundation), all subsequent events will be at locations in downtown Urbana that are all within easy walking distance of each other.  Once people get into the downtown area, they can start making the rounds, easily walking between festival events. Also, the performers are very accessible, especially when they are presenting workshops or leading jam sessions. The people who come to the festival all seem to enjoy the vibe of hanging out for the weekend in downtown Urbana. Visiting performers have mentioned this several times, saying things like “you all have a great music scene going on in Champaign-Urbana,” and “everyone here is so nice; it’s so much fun to be a part of this.” Some performers have returned in subsequent years just to attend the Festival. 

I also want to point out that the Folk and Roots Festival is very affordable; an “all events” wristband is $40 in advance and $50 at the door. We will also offer one day (either Friday or Saturday) and single venue (e.g. the Iron Post) wristbands for those who might only want to come out for one evening or catch all the performances at one venue. Also, over half of the 70 events are free and can be enjoyed by everyone in the community. 

As people walk out of a performance or workshop, we hope that they feel happy and satisfied with the experience.  Festival events help people connect on so many levels. If you are a musician, you can hone your chops and help others at workshops and jam sessions. If you are interested in playing music, you can take a “learn to play” workshop. If you love dancing, or just like to watch and listen, checkout the dances and dance bands. And if you love a great performance, check out the schedule and start planning your time at the festival. With the wide variety of participatory activities, along with dozens of performances, we hope that the festival is the party of the year for downtown Urbana. 

The C-U Folk and Roots Festival starts this Thursday, October 24th and continues through Saturday, October 26th. The full schedule of events as well as information about venue location and admission prices can be found here.

Photos by Eric Frahm